By Umair Javed –
Youth demographics continue to excite experts but which way the cookie crumbles cannot be predicted as we are not dealing with an exact science here
A cursory age-wise analysis of the recently finalized electoral rolls reveals that around 48 percent of voters, i.e. 41 million out of 84.3 million, fall in the age bracket between 18 and 35.
These voters are now classified as young voters, and based on a simple chronological calculation, would not have had the chance to vote prior to the 2002 general election.
This particular demographic contingency reflects the age structure of Pakistan’s population. Beyond simple electoral math, a look at the most recent Pakistan Demographic Survey reveals that the country is also currently in possession of what is commonly known as a youth bulge — i.e. a large and young working-age population.
This is most visible from the fact that the current median age of a Pakistani citizen (male or female) is 21.6 years.
Both these inter-connected phenomena, the youth bulge and the related growth in young voters, have the potential to impact Pakistan’s socio-economic and political landscape in a number of ways.
Different analysts have been busy pontificating on this development, particularly with regards to how young voters could shape the results of our next general elections.
Maleeha Lodhi, political analyst and former ambassador to the US, expounded on this development in a recent article thus: “The party which has so far attracted youth in substantial numbers to its public rallies is Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf. PTI is also the party that has increasingly come to symbolize hope for an emerging new generation that wants to hear an optimistic, can-do message about the future.” (The News, 24/07/2012).
“According to researchers at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, the size of the middle class is around 25m individuals, out of which more than half are eligible to vote in the next elections”
Similarly, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Dr. Rasul Bakhsh Rais, has also analyzed the phenomena from the same angle:
“How the young voter is going to vote is the worst fear of the PML-N and the PPP, knowing well that their leaders cannot match the popular appeal of Imran Khan. Lacking that personal touch, President Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif have groomed themselves as masters of elite-network politics — court electables and you will be fine. One of the most interesting things to watch from now until the conclusion of the next general elections is how the youth factor — which is apparently a PTI strength — will play out against elite-network politics that Imran Khan has also embraced belatedly.” (The Express Tribune, 06/08/2012).
Both experts have elaborated on a commonly accepted strand of thinking that is premised on Imran Khan’s appeal with the younger population. For the sake of objective analysis, however, it is important to deconstruct the phenomena of young voters, and the youth population in general, along socio-political and economic lines.
In simpler words, political preferences cannot be gauged simply on the basis of how old one is at a particular point in time. Rather, the process of forming who to support in a general election is shaped and influenced by pre-existing loyalties, by one’s immediate socio-economic conditions, and most of all, by the various instruments and tools of political mobilization.
When factoring in all of these other caveats, it is far more difficult to arrive at a homogenous understanding of the impact that Pakistan’s demographic reality will have on its politics.
Historically speaking, Pakistan’s growth and social landscape has resulted in the evolution of two brands of politics — one for rural areas (representing nearly 64% of the population), and the other for urban areas (representing 36% of the population).
In rural areas, villages, or hamlets, act as self-contained political units, which are hierarchically organized, socially speaking, and connected to a network of other such social formations.
These formations, in turn, are then linked up with local political actors — most commonly landlords — and hence form the building blocks of extensive electoral factions.
The control over land, access to the state bureaucracy, and kinship capital are important determinants in this environment and play a big part in influencing political preferences.
In this backdrop, elections in the last 30 years or so have become important platforms for the conduct of machine politics — a form of politics firmly situated in the domain of the local, and one determined very marginally by macro-moods and events.
Populated by an array of actors, the contemporary electoral theatre is now built on a political economy of patronage and deference, and held together by acts of collusion and coercion. Increasingly, each constituency has (d)evolved into a self-contained universe, which features slow, measured movements during peace-time, and frenzied activity during elections.
“Imran Khan’s appeal with the younger population forms the crux of the debate. For the sake of objective analysis, however, it is important to deconstruct the phenomena of young voters, and the youth population in general, along socio-political and economic lines”
Distinguishing the impact of young voters in a rural electoral environment is a difficult task. Based on projections made from the 1998 census, nearly 37 percent of the rural population falls between the age bracket of 15-35, and juxtaposed with voter turnout figures (as high as 60-65% in some rural constituencies), has historically participated in the political process.
There is no hard and fast way of stating that the younger rural population will vote differently from before. In urban areas however, Pakistan has seen the steady growth in the size of a white-collar, consumption heavy, middle class.
According to researchers at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, the size of this particular class is around 25 million individuals, out of which more than half are eligible to vote in the next elections. This stratum, most commonly found in cities like Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, and Multan, is the one that is currently most vocal in their call for political change, and is most supportive of the PTI.
Based on their presence in the media, in professional groups, and in colleges and universities, other political parties have also become cognizant of the potential impact that the middle class can have in the coming years.
In response to Imran Khan’s popularity, the PML-N has also reached out to the youth in the form of a laptop scheme, and awarding scholarships and prizes to high achievers. Recently, the Punjab government held the Punjab Youth Festival, ostensibly in a bid to garner favour with Punjab’s growing middle class population.
That said though, voters that lie beyond the urban middle class are still divided along a whole host of lines that seem to exhibit longevity and resoluteness.
For starters, similar to Barbara Harriss-White’s study on urban trends in India, urbanization in Pakistan has witnessed the steady rise of an ‘intermediate’ class, composed of small contractors, agro-traders, wholesalers, transport owners, and other assorted businessmen, reflecting the petty nature of capitalist accumulation.
Straddling the line between the formal and the informal economy, members of this upwardly mobile class formulate hybrid relationships — using clan and biradrilinkages — with local bureaucrats and politicians on one hand, and with dependent labour on the other.
They have become indispensible actors on the political landscape not only for their economic contributions during elections, but also because of their ability to channel, coerce, and manipulate support from ‘below’.
In urban Sindh, Urdu-speaking groups are still wedded to an ethnically motivated agenda. In rural areas of the same province, Sindhi nationalism is an important instrument and cause of social mobilization, best practiced by the PPP and other smaller groups.
Even in Punjab, the province with the most diffused urban growth, Seraiki nationalism in South Punjab has emerged as a potent political symbol — one that could undercut any popularity that PTI’s ‘change’ agenda might have.
All of these things point to the complexity underpinning Pakistan’s electoral and socio-economic geography, and are proof that simplistic notions based on demographic contingencies cannot possibly offer a complete picture.
Reality and subjective evaluation of it are two different things, and right now all we know is that the young population of this country represents a significant portion of the electorate.
Beyond this objective, and empirically verifiable assessment, there is no hard and fast rule regarding the same segment’s political affiliation, voting patterns, and social preferences.
All of these things will hopefully become clearer once adequate research is conducted after the next general elections.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad and can be reached at email@example.com